Jeon Sung-min recently interviewed LKL’s blogger-in-chief for an article in the Euro Journal. The interview was conducted in English, and he translated it into Korean for publication in the newspaper. Here’s a slightly polished-up transcript of the interview, published with Jeon Sung-min’s kind permission.
Euro Journal: How and when did you get interested in Korea and Korean culture?
Philip: In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was lucky enough to work at one of the leading accounting firms. One of my favourite clients was the first European investment fund permitted to invest directly in the Korean market – the Korea Europe Fund. That got me started. They were always expanding because the Korean market was booming, and whenever they issued new shares I had to review their share offering document which had loads of interesting information about this unfamiliar country. Then, the early 1990s was the time when many Korean banks wanted to open branches in London. My accounting firm had pretty much cornered the market in helping foreign banks to set up in London, and having spent some time at the Bank of England I was in the front line.
Then in 2000 came Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Not a Korean film. Nor, really, a Hong Kong film. But it opened my eyes to the world of Asian film, and at the time the Korean film industry was the most vibrant. So my business background in Korean companies came together with my interest in the films. That, plus the fact that my hairdresser at the time happened to be Korean, so we swapped film and music recommendations. From there, I started exploring the history and the literature.
Even nowadays, Korea and Korean culture is not well known internationally compared to China and Japan, especially to Western people. What do you think are the reasons for that?
I think it’s purely historical. For much of Korea’s history the country has been closed to the outside world – during the Choson dynasty foreign visitors were actively discouraged. There was only a brief period of time between Korea being in their special relationship with China, and Korea being annexed by Japan, when the West got to know a bit more about Korea – and a lot has happened since then. I guess it’s only in the last twenty years or so that Korea has really started to be noticed, with its products becoming market leaders, its films getting an international following, and interesting characters such as Rain appearing on the international stage.
As a non-Korean, how easy was it for you to get to know about Korea and Korean culture? Was it easy to get any relevant information? Do you think Korea is doing enough marketing and are things well organized for non-Koreans who want to know about Korea and Korean culture?
Everyone has to follow their own path. I don’t think there’s a good one-stop shop for everything Korean, though if people use my own site as a tool that’s very flattering.
The way I started, because I was most interested in film, was with koreanfilm.org, which is a great site. For history and literature I just ordered whatever books were readily available: I used to live just opposite Daunt bookshop in Marylebone High Street, which has got to be the best bookshop in London. They organize their books by country, so it’s easy to find books about Korea.
I wish there was a site like koreanfilm.org for grown-ups interested in Korean pop music, but there isn’t.
I’m afraid to say, I haven’t used any Korean government sponsored websites (such as korea.net or tour2korea.com) as I don’t find them easy to navigate. Maybe it’s a question that user-created content – material created by enthusiasts – is always going to be more attractive than content created by people whose job is cultural promotion. That’s not meant to be a critical comment, it’s just the way of the world.
Is Korea doing enough marketing? I think they’re doing a fantastic job in investing in cultural promotion. Looking at the new Cultural Centre, I was afraid that they might have spent so much money on their wonderful new premises that they wouldn’t have any cash left over for cultural events. But there seems to be a constant supply of interesting events going on there.
One thing I’d like to encourage Korean companies to do though, and that’s to support the Dano festival in Trafalgar Square. It’s the highest profile Korean event in London, and it needs funding.
You’re running one of the best English language websites about Korea. How did it start and how has it developed?
Thank you. Very kind. How did it start? Well, I’d been following Korean culture for a while – maybe since 2001 – and I was building up a store of knowledge and opinions, and I felt I had to let it out. It was too much to hold in the head. I wanted to be able to tell people: if you’re interested in Korean film, these are the ones you should watch. If you’re interested in other aspects, these are the books you should read. And if you’re interested in music, don’t listen to Super Junior. (Only kidding). So the idea came to me that I should put it all on the web. I sat down and wrote for several hours, letting it all flood out, and two weeks later version 1 of my site was up on the web (right). That was in early 2006.
Originally I thought that was going to be it. But I found that I wanted to keep updating it – telling people about upcoming events, reviewing particular books I’d read, or highlighting particular news items. So I converted my site into blog format and joined the ranks of pesky foreigners writing about Korea.
How do you distinguish yourself from the other blogs?
The feedback I hear from some sources is that people feel that a lot of the English language blogs can come across as quite negative about Korea. Maybe the bloggers have had specific bad experiences, and it’s fine to talk about them. But then either the blogger makes a generalization from that specific experience, or the reader infers one. It’s dangerous to make generalizations, because there are always exceptions to a rule.
I try to give the site a different angle from the other blogs. I’m not in Korea, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to talk about current affairs such as politics, street protests, 6 party talks and the like – unless there’s a particular UK angle. So I reported the mad cow demonstration in Whitehall because it was newsworthy, and sometimes, in respect of a long running story, I do an article providing links to different sources where people can find a blow-by-blow account of how the story unfolded over time. But in general, I try to stick to areas where I feel I can add value.
So you try not to be critical about Korea?
Maybe I’m lucky that in the subjects I want to cover in my blog the question doesn’t really come up. Sometimes I see things which I disagree with and it’s very tempting to conclude that “Koreans in general have such-and-such disagreeable quality”. Maybe the most common accusation is xenophobia in its various forms: nationalism, anti-Americanism and the like. I try not to do that. Generalizations and stereotypes might have an element of truth but are equally likely to be wrong. I have come across Koreans who have this strange idea that all Englishmen are gentlemen. You don’t have to look very far to realise that’s not true.
But I certainly won’t say everything Korean is wonderful. In my book and CD reviews I don’t hesitate so say something’s rubbish if that’s what I think.
I find it most difficult when I think a Korean cultural event is disappointing. I feel obliged to write about it because I try to report on all Korean cultural events in London. But given that I now know a lot of the organizers I have to find a way of phrasing my review so that it expresses my view without coming across as too negative. I want to stay on good terms with these people, after all.
What does your site cover that no-one else does?
For a London audience, obviously the coverage of London events is I suppose something no-one else is covering as comprehensively as me – at least in English.
For an international audience, as far as I know there’s no other blog which tries to cover Korean contemporary art. Similarly, I think LKL was one of the first sites to try to introduce Korean indie musicians to a wider audience, though I’m gradually finding more sites that do this. I feel so privileged that people want to contribute to my site, and that people around the world are finding the content useful.
I confess, though, that most people who visit my site come to learn about the Magic Straight Perm, or to look at pictures of Super Junior, Jeon Ji-hyun and Lee Sabi. That’s fine, because that’s all part of Korea as well, and they’re nice to look at. But I appreciate it most when people read my more exclusive content – reports of Korean events in London, or those special articles that people spend so much time writing. And I’m so pleased that firstly, many people seem to appreciate what I’m doing and secondly that people want to join in and contribute to the site.
What are the articles you’d most like to write?
There’s so much I want to do if I had the time. But I have a full-time job. If I didn’t need the money, I’d spend all my time researching and improving my site, both with enhanced technology and more content. If I won the lottery tomorrow so that I could do this full time, or had people to cover the areas for me, I’d want to
- Interview prominent members of the Korean community in London
- Interview British veterans of the Korean War to get their stories1
- Cover Korean drama and Korean pop music in an intelligent way
- Expand the business coverage – Korean companies in the UK, British companies in Korea
And I’d hire a programmer to develop the site’s functionality. No-one has yet coded the ideal events calendar. I know what I want: now I need someone to build it for me.
Would you ever want to work for a Korean cultural organization?
Hmmm. Difficult. I think I’d be extremely flattered to be considered. But right now, I like my freedom and my independence. If I ever did work for an organization, I’d have to give up my blogging. How could I comment objectively if it’s my job to put on cultural events? If, for example, I worked for the KCC, how could I say in my blog that they’re doing a good job or a bad job? Plus, if I worked for a South Korean organization, it might be difficult for me to report on North Korean events. Right now, my blogging is important to me. If ever I got bored with blogging, then maybe I’d think about it. But if I was no longer blogging, maybe I’d have lost my interest in Korean culture anyway. I hope that doesn’t happen. Overall, I’d be worried that if I’m doing it as a job, it wouldn’t be fun any more.
Apart from the lack of time to do as much as you would like, do you have any other frustrations?
I think there are two things. Firstly, my inability to speak Korean. I’m trying to do something about that by taking the classes at the Cultural Centre, but it’s going to be difficult to get to the standard I want to be. Secondly, my lack of contacts in the Korean community. I’m working on that too, but it takes time.
The thing is, I’m not sure that a lot of Koreans know about what I’m trying to do. For a lot of events organized by the community in New Malden I only hear about them by chance. The Food Festival is an example of that. And in the past three years there have been performances by three Korean stars – Lee Soo Young, Lim Hyung Joo and Kim Soo Hee – that I nearly missed because as far as I know they weren’t advertised outside of the Korean community. I only find out about such events if I happen to be talking to a Korean friend who happens to know that they are being organised and that I might be interested. So it’s just luck that I find out. Because I can’t speak Korean, the calendar on the Residents Association website means nothing to me, and I don’t often go to the food shops where there might be posters advertising the events. If Koreans want to share their events with foreigners, they need to get the message out in English. I can help with that via my website (which has over a thousand visitors a day), via my Facebook group and other forums, but only if people tell me what they’re organizing. All sorts of foreigners really love coming to the Food Festival – but obviously they can only come if they know about it, preferably more than a couple of days in advance.
Do you think there are many non-Koreans interested in Korea / Korean culture in UK? If so, what attracts them? What do Korea / Koreans have to do more for them?
It’s difficult to say how many people are interested in Korean culture. What I’m so encouraged by is that the audience for the events at the Cultural Centre represents a broad cross-section. By no means is it all Korean – and in fact I would say that the majority is non-Korean, which is great. And there are all sorts of informal networks of people which interact and overlap – for example there’s the Korean language meetup group, which is a great way of meeting new people, and the network of Dae Jang Geum fans. Plus the fact that the language classes at the Cultural Centre are vastly over-subscribed is a great indicator of interest in things Korean.
Of my British friends who are interested in Korea, each of them started in different ways. The films, the TV dramas, the Pop music, the food, the temples. One of the people who contribute to my site just went there because her boyfriend was working there for three months. She ended up traveling around on her own and fell in love with the people and everything about Korea. She’s now written a book about it which is coming out this Summer2.
There’s a variety of things which attract non-Koreans to Korean culture – and there’s no one single answer to what is THE thing which attracts people. Even if you take something as popular as Dae Jang Geum (above left), is it possible to say what it is that attracts people? Maybe some people like the cooking aspects; some people think Lee Young-ae is cute, some people like the story line or approve of the morality portrayed, or the historical aspects. So if you can’t identify one thing within an admittedly popular cultural product as DJG, it’s tricky. OK, let’s agree that people like it because of the good looking actors and wholesome story lines. Then we can say, hey, that goes for Winter Sonata too (above right); but then you get other people who think Korean films are cool because of the slightly less wholesome story lines of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy – below). Maybe it’s best to say, people find Korean culture attractive because it’s different – it’s not Hollywood.
Choi Min-sik in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy
What to do more? Don’t try to ape Hollywood. Don’t try to ape America. JYP has opened his talent academy in New York to bring Korean stars to the US market. I do hope he won’t just be churning out generic boy-bands for the US consumer. The Wonder Girls are quite funny though!
- What do you like most about Korea?
Where to start? Maybe the food? That has truly international appeal, and you don’t have to know anything about Korea to appreciate it. My wife (who’s English by the way) loves Korean food but has never heard of Rain.
- What do you like least?
OK, I was wrong. Hongeohoe. How can you eat that stuff?
There are aspects of Korean culture that I haven’t really started enjoying yet. Choson literati music is something I will come to appreciate in time, just like I haven’t really learned to like Wagner yet.
- Where in Korea would you most like to go?
Jirisan at tea-picking time, Seoraksan in the autumn, and Baekdusan at any time.
- Where would you least like to go?
Boryeong at Mud Festival time.
- Who’s your favourite actress?
Most beautiful? Lee Mi-suk. Most talented? I’d have to say Moon So-ri or Jeon Do-Yeon. Moon So-ri stars in two of my favourite films: Oasis and Baramnan Gajok. And of course Jeon Do-Yeon in Milyang was fantastic.
There are so many good ones. I’ll say Sol Kyung-gu for Peppermint Candy and Oasis. Ask me tomorrow and you’ll get a different answer.
- What film do you most want to see?
From the golden age: Kim Ki Young’s Housemaid, which still hasn’t made it onto DVD; From this year, I’m looking forward to Kim Ji-woon’s The Good The Bad and The Weird.
- Who’s your favourite singer?
- What are you reading right now?
James Church: Hidden Moon. It’s a detective story set in North Korea written by a former US intelligence operative.
- What character from history would you most like to interview?
Lady Hyegyong. But I think maybe she’s so discrete that she wouldn’t tell me anything that isn’t already in her memoirs.
- Who would you most like to interview now?
The Korean I’d most like to meet again is Baek Un Ch’ol, who runs the Mogsokwon sculpture park in Jejudo. I met him briefly 8 years ago when my Korean journey hadn’t really started, and I think maybe he’s one reason I got started in the first place. He’s an amazing man and he makes the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. And the Englishman is Brother Anthony of Taize, who teaches at Sogang University and translates Korean poetry into English. I think he’s got an interesting story to tell. And it has the British – Korean cultural links which is what my site is all about.
Throughout what you’ve done regarding Korea / Korean culture, you’d be one of the most appreciated non-Korean by Koreans in UK. Leave a message to them. For example, a greeting or what you’d expect from Koreans.
If Koreans appreciate what I’m doing, that’s wonderful. I’m always keen for feedback. So, leave a comment on my website; tell me about the events you’re organising. Write an article for me. It would be good to have some Korean input into my site. Actually, what I’d quite like to do at some stage is do something with a local school. Maybe an essay competition about your experiences living in England, or what Chuseok means to you. The winning essay gets published on the website!
But really, if Koreans appreciate what I’m doing, that’s great, but I’m grateful to Korea for what it’s doing for me. Maybe I’m a little bit crazy to be trying to cover everything that I do. But because I follow pretty much everything to do with Korean culture, high and low, I’m exploring and enjoying things which I would never otherwise have done. From contemporary art to breakdancing, Korea has introduced me to a lot of things. So, 감사합니다.